Free Will and Punishment


It seems to me that the decision, both as an individual and as a society, to either punish or rehabilitate criminals hinges on the degree to which the former believes in in free will vs. determinism. In short, if you believe in free will, you believe that one can have all the disadvantages in the world heaped upon him or her, but that when it comes time to make a moral decision, this person will be expected–due to an innate and distinct free will–to make the right decision.

You can draw a line directly from this belief to that of belief in punishment. And for good reason: if inputs into a decision, such as being severely beaten as a child, being raised by foster homes, having no education, etc. have no ultimate effect, i.e. if the individual still has complete control over their actions due to free will, then it makes sense to punish people who do bad things.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say Chris is a bad guy. He runs with the wrong crowd, gets in fights, carries a knife in case he has to stab someone, etc. He’s hanging out with his buddies at his favorite pool hall one night, and he’s with a girl he’s trying to get with. All his buddies are thugs, basically, and honor and respect are the primary currency within the group.

Well, one guy in another group playing pool nearby decides to insult the girl he’s trying to impress. His whole crew sees it, and they start hooting and hollering to apply pressure. Basically, he needs to react aggressively or he will lose both the respect of his group and of the girl he’s trying to get with. While he’s trying to decide what to do, the other guy pushes him straight in the chest and spits in his face. As he glances from side to side he sees one look on everyone’s face: “Are you going to take that?”

He is overwhelmed by the urge to attack him, and before he knows it he is drawing back his pool cue (still in his hand from his last shot) to strike.

Stop time.

What are the inputs here? Let’s say he’s genetically prone to violence. He had no loving parents when he was a child. He was beaten constantly by his father before he was abandoned by him. He has a 6th grade education. And he’s into drugs and alcohol. Add that to the dynamic of needing to maintain status within his only peer group–all of which are staring at him and waiting for him to act.

These are all truths. They are realities that make up the variables leading to a decision of whether or not he will hit this other man with a pool cue, and ultimately go to jail.

The question I have for the free will group is, “what is the strength of his free will in this situation, and how much does it matter?” Does he have the same free will as a Harvard grad in the same scenario? In other words, if a Harvard grad is in the same situation, and he immediately grabs his girl and leaves while calling the cops, was he actually more moral or did he just not have the same pressures to commit the negative action?

Remember, the Harvard grad has options. His girl will still stay with him if he doesn’t get in the fight, and his friends will tell him he did the right thing. Plus, he knows all the implications of his actions. He has much to lose if he gets something put on his police record. None of these things apply to Chris. In fact, they apply in the opposite direction. Everything leans toward him attacking being the right thing to do–given his situation.

In other words, how much free will is needed to make a correct decision seems highly dependent on the pressures that exist already–most of which are products of variables outside the control of the decision-maker.

The Harvard grad didn’t make a difficult decision because he had so many options. Chris, on the other hand, didn’t have any options. From his genetics to his upbringing to his immediate surroundings–he basically had no option but to attack the guy.

To look at it another way, how much free will does a human exert when deciding not to eat? A lot. How much free will does a human exert when deciding not to fly like a duck? None. Why? Because there is no natural pressure to fly like a duck. Along those same lines, how tempting would it be for a man to sleep with the hot blonde he just met if he had been castrated? Not at all.

The point is that will is tied directly to deterministic pressure to act. And the more of that pressure you are facing, the less, your “will” is a factor in your decisions.

That is, unless you’re highly religious. Religion solves this science and nature problem by saying that all people have the same option to make the right choice, regardless of whether the cards are stacked against them or not. That would explain why the religious enjoy seeing criminals suffer so much–because they believe they had THE OPTION to do the right thing.

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And it really goes all the way back. Let’s take the Garden of Eden narrative. Here you have God, controlling the entire environment. The laws of physics, the desires of Adam and Eve, the desirability of the tree, the presence of the snake, etc. So he creates a piece of fruit on a tree that’s so dangerous it will kill him (and everyone in the whole world after him).

Not only does he create the fruit, but he gives Adam both the eyes to see it with, as well as the desire to eat it. Then, next to him, he creates two other beings–both of which try and convince him to eat it. Keep in mind that Adam could have been created without ears, so he couldn’t hear Eve and the snake, but that would be too easy.

So, when Adam is about to take a bite of the apple, what is the balance of natural pressure vs. free will at that moment? I’d argue it’s much the same as the balance of pressure on Chris when he’s about to swing the pool cue. In both cases the deck is completely stacked. In Adam’s case, the creator of the Universe just put a tasty fruit right next to him, along with two companions to convince him to eat it. For Chris, he’s facing a world of loneliness and rejection if he doesn’t swing.

Anyway, enough analogies. The idea of punishing criminals because “they had a choice” is, as the Hacker’s quote goes, “Universally stupid.” And the alternative narrative is simple: you do what the variables say you’ll do. That’s why most rich people come from a world of advantage, while most poor and criminal types come from a world of disadvantage. If you need more evidence, look at the data on common characteristics of serial killers’ lives (hint:abuse).

And some people get this. The Scandinavian countries tend to rehabilitate rather than punish. Why? Because they understand that negative inputs lead to negative outcomes, and that the concept of free will is little more than a practical necessity at this point in our development–and certainly not something to base a criminal justice system on.

So let’s sum up with some oversimplifications:

  • Religion –> a belief in supernatural Free Will

  • Free Will –> the belief that criminals deserve suffering

  • Secular –> Less/No Religion

  • Less/No Religion –> Less/No belief in supernatural Free Will

  • Less/No belief in Free Will –> more belief in determinism

  • Belief in determinism –> belief that the prosperous are lucky instead of virtuous, and that the poor and criminal are unlucky instead of evil or lazy

  • This leads to a desire to elevate the variables for everyone, so that the better inputs will lead to better outputs

…which is progressivism/liberalism/socialism.

…which is why the Scandinavian countries are less into the idea of criminals being “bad”, and more into re-education and rehabilitation. So, once again, the U.S. is being hamstrung by religious culture. It is the belief in free will over determinism that leads to the entire concept of “deserving” something, e.g. riches or suffering. And it has to end if we want to make any real progress. ::

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